The Pittsburgh Steelers have gone through a ton of roster turnover this offseason and will be fielding a different team in 2013 from the one that finished 2012.
Several players who played part-time roles in 2012 will find the opportunity for increased playing time when they arrive for the season. Their success or failure will be key to how the season unfolds for the hopeful Steelers.
Here’s a look at five players who will be integral in 2013.
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Plaxico Burress halfway through the 2012 season because of injuries to Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery.
In the end, he played a small role in the team’s stretch run. That will change in 2013 regardless of how the wide receiver position is treated in the NFL draft later this month.
Burress has the size to be a mismatch for any defender out of the slot. He also has a lot of experience. His ability will make him important in the red zone as the team tries to adjust while tight end Heath Miller recovers.
The Steelers, especially with Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders gone, will need an experienced, tall receiver like Burress. While there’s no excuse not to add Tavon Austin or one of the other top receivers in the draft, Burress is a nice option for the short term.
With Heath Miller likely to miss at least a few games while he recovers from his knee injury, the Pittsburgh Steelers will need to replace his production in the lineup.
Matt Spaeth is a nice addition as a blocker and red-zone receiver, but David Paulson is the player who will make the difference. He is a balanced talent like Miller and can be effective in either role.
Paulson needs to step up and win the competition to replace Miller. He could soften the blow from Miller’s loss enough to give Pittsburgh a shot without the injured tight end.
The success or failure of Jason Worilds will be one of the most closely watched parts of the 2013 season. He has the unenviable task of replacing James Harrison on the outside of the defense.
Worilds has a chance to be good. He had success in limited stints on the field and notched five sacks in 2012. He has 10 in his limited three-year career. Those are good numbers to build on.
The problem is health. Worilds has never been able to stay healthy for a full season, and he hasn’t done enough to emerge. That doesn’t mean he won’t be successful, only that there isn’t a lot of trust in him.
If he does emerge, Pittsburgh will have its future linebacker star, and the defense will continue to be productive. If not, the Steelers are in big trouble and will have to turn to someone else.
The trust in Worilds will be easier to gauge after the draft, when everyone will know if Pittsburgh felt the need to spend a high draft pick on the position.
Last season, Cortez Allen competed with Keenan Lewis to start opposite Ike Taylor. Lewis won the competition in a close race and went on to have an excellent season before cashing in during free agency.
Now, Allen has to take the next step and replace Lewis in the starting lineup. Allen has the talent to do it, which he flashed in 2012 as the team’s nickel corner.
William Gay was not brought in to compete; he was brought in as insurance for Allen’s old nickel spot in case Curtis Brown or someone else cannot step in.
Allen is the guy. He has good coverage skills and can make the big play when needed. He’s a good pass defender and doesn’t make a lot of mental errors. Those he does make are the result of youthful energy instead of poor effort or ability.
This is a big year. If Allen can show he’s good, he could end up getting a contract extension. If not, Pittsburgh will likely move in another direction.
Last season, Will Johnson left training camp as an afterthought. This year, he’s coming off a nice rookie campaign and lining up to be a bigger part of the offense.
Johnson proved he could be a good pass receiver with the toughness and physicality to bull over opposing defenders.
In 2013, he could also find more time getting carries in the rushing attack, where he’s mostly been a blocker.
Johnson’s success as a blocker is known. His ability as a runner is not. If he can provide some carries, he can give Pittsburgh a more versatile rushing attack, particularly in the red zone.